A WINDOW TO THE PAST: REPIN AND THE KURSK ROOT ICON

Aside

Anyone familiar with Russian art will have seen the remarkable painting (completed in 1883) by Ilya Repin (1844–1930) called Крестный ход в Курской губернии — Krestnuiy khod v Kurskoy Gubernii loosely, “Religious Procession in Kursk Province.”  It is fascinating not only because of the skill of the artist, but also because it is a look at Tsarist Russia, warts and all.  With a slight change of costume, it could be a scene out of the Middle Ages:

To the left, we see the poor and humble walking as best they can, and above them, mounted on horses, the civil authorities.

In the center we see the well-to do and the clergy.  Note the many tree stumps on the slope behind them:

At right — in front of the fellow striking at the crowd with his whip — men carry an elaborate structure, decorated with flowers and beribboned.  It contains an icon, though we see only the golden glints of light reflecting off its case.  Some of those carrying it are shod in woven bark shoes, which was common among the peasantry of those days:

Though many are familiar with the painting, most do not know that it depicts the annual procession carrying the Курская Коренная — Kurskaya Korennaya — the “Kursk Root” icon — from the monastery where it was kept to the city of Kursk.

Today we will take a look at that somewhat controversial icon type.  Here is the “Kursk Root” image as it appears today, in its enameled and filigreed cover in the style of the beginning of the 20th century.

It is said that the Kursk Root icon originally consisted only of the center image of Mary and the Christ Child, in the form known as the Znamenie (“Sign”) Mother of god.  Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the inscription across the bottom of the icon.  It is long, so I will divide it.  Here is the beginning:

It reads:

ИЗОБРАЗЧЕНИЕ И МЕРА ЧУДОТВОРНАГО ОБРАЗА…
IZOBRAZHENIE I MYERA CHUDOTVORNAGO OBRAZA…
“[The] Representation and Measure of the Wonder-working Image…”

…ЗНАМЕНИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ КОРЕННО КУРСКИЯ
...ZNAMENIYA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI KORENNO KURSKIYA
“[Of the] “Sign” Most-Holy Mother-of-God  Root-Kursk.”

So all together,
“THE REPRESENTATION AND MEASURE OF THE WONDERWORKING IMAGE OF THE ‘SIGN’ MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD ‘ROOT-KURSK.'”

The origin story of the icon tells us that its “appearance” took place in the 13th century (the 1200s), when Russia had been devastated by the plundering and burning Mongol hordes.  The tale is set in the vicinity of Kursk, a place some 280 miles south of Moscow.

Kursk was destroyed by the invading Tatars under Batu Khan about 1237-1240, and was not rebuilt again until 1586.  After the invasions of the Tatars, what had been a city became a wilderness.

In the autumn of 1295 (September 8th, so the story goes), a hunter from Rylsk, a city down the Sem River to the West, came wandering through the forest in the vicinity of Kursk, looking for game.  On the banks of the Tuskar River near Kursk, he found a small icon lying face down at the roots of a tree.  When he turned it over, he found it to be a copy of the “Sign” Mother of God.  And it is said that as soon as he picked it up, a spring of water bubbled out of the ground where it had lain (remember the Catholic story of Bernadette and the spring at Lourdes?).  That is supposed to have been the icon’s first miracle.

Here is a map showing Kursk ( Курскъ ) at right center, and at the far lower left is Rylsk (Рылскъ)

If we look more closely at Kursk, we see the River Tuskar (Тускар ) flowing northward just to the right of it, and bending eastward near the top of the image:

A little wooden chapel was built for the icon there, and its reputation as a miracle-working icon began to spread.  Soon people were coming all the way from Rylsk to venerate the image and to hope for miracles.

Hearing all the news, Prince Vasiliy Shemyaka of Rylsk ordered that the icon be brought to Rylsk, and crowds of citizens went out to greet the icon on its arrival, but the Prince himself was not among them.  Because of this sign of disrespect, the legend says Prince Vasiliy was struck blind, until (as these stories go — another common motif), he repented with prayer before the icon, and was healed.  He then had a church dedicated to the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God” built at Rylsk for the icon, and established a feast to be held annually in its honor.

But here we encounter yet another common motif in the hagiography of icons.  You will remember that traditionally these “wonderworking” icons behave like conscious persons, and can move under their own volition.  Well, the story tells us that the icon from Kursk disappeared from the church at Rylsk, and was found to have returned to the little chapel originally built for it at Kursk.  The citizens of Rylsk went to retrieve it, but when they brought it back to Rylsk, it disappeared again.  This happened several times, until finally the people of Rylsk accepted the inevitable and let the icon stay where it wanted to be, at Kursk.  A priest named Bogoliub (literally “God-Love”) came and undertook the care and rituals of the chapel.

In 1383 the Tatars came back to Kursk, and tried to burn down the chapel.  It would not burn, so they suspected Bogoliub of magic.  The priest told them it was the icon that was protecting the chapel, so they took the icon, cut it in two pieces, threw the pieces off in different places, burnt the chapel (it worked this time), and took Bogoliub prisoner.  He worked as a captive sheepherder until rescued by some ambassadors from Moscow who heard him singing songs to Mary as they passed by.  Bogoliub returned to the site of the chapel, found the pieces of the icon, and they are said to have miraculously grown back together, with no sign of the cut showing except the presence of something like dew.

Hearing of these wonders, the people of Rylsk took the icon back to their city, but again the icon disappeared and was found back at Kursk.  So they rebuilt the burnt chapel at Kursk for the icon, and it stayed there for some 200 years.

In 1597 Tsar Feodor of Moscow ordered the rebuilding of the city of Kursk, heard of the “miracles” of its icon, and had it brought to Moscow, where it was received with great acclaim.  The Tsaritsa Irina had a rich covering of pearls, precious stones, etc. made for the icon.  It was at this time that the Tsar is said to have had the original icon placed in a gilt silver frame, with the image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) at the top, and Old Testament prophets at the sides (as in the icon type “The Praise of the Mother of God”).  Then the icon was sent back to Kursk.  A monastery and church were built on the site of the old chapel, and a new church dedicated to Mary as the “Lifegiving Fountain” was constructed where the spring had appeared when the icon was found.  The Monastery came to be known as the “Root Desert,” after the root where the icon was originally discovered.  “Desert” (Пустынь/Pustuin) is used in Russian Orthodoxy to signify a monastic settlement, recalling the Theban Desert of Egypt, where Christian monasticism originated.

When another Tartar invasion threatened, the icon was taken to a larger church in the city of Kursk, and a copy was left in its place in the chapel.

In the 17th century, the “Pretender” Dmitriy (eventually Tsar of Russia from 1605-1606) claimed to be the son of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” and to have survived an assassination attempt.  His army fought to put him on the throne, and during his battles he knew the propaganda value of the Kursk icon, and had it brought to his military camp in Putivl.  He eventually took it with him to the palace in Moscow.  The icon was there until 1615.

In 1612, a Polish commander besieged Kursk, but it is said the inhabitants prayed to Mary, who supposedly appeared on the walls with two shining monks to fend off the attackers.  The citizens of Kursk promised in their prayers that they would build a monastery in the city in the name of the “Sign” icon.  They petitioned the Tsar (then Mikhail Feodorovich), and in 1615 the icon was returned to Kursk and placed in the cathedral there.  In 1618 it was moved to the “Sign” Monastery in Kursk.

In the intervening years, the icon (or copies of it) was further used in one conflict or another — including a copy sent to General Kutuzov by the City of Kursk in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812.  This again is an example of the belief that icons can aid in battle and defense (or be used as propaganda devices to inspire soldiers, depending on one’s point of view).

It is said that Revolutionaries tried to blow up the icon in 1898, but it somehow survived the explosion undamaged.  It was stolen from the “Sign” Monastery in April of 1918 and stripped of its valuable covering, but it was found and returned in early May.

In 1919 (this is after the Revolution) the icon was taken to Serbia, briefly to Crimea in 1910, then back to Serbia, and eventually to Munich (Germany), and in 1951 to the United States, settling eventually at the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, New York and the  Cathedral Church of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City, which is the residence of the First Hierarch of the very conservative division of Orthodoxy called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).  It is treated by present-day Russian Orthodox much as it was in the past, as a “miracle-working” icon, and as such it continues to add new stories of its “miracles” to its traditional history.

 Now, as mentioned earlier, it is said that the original icon found at Kursk was a small copy of the Znamenie/”Sign” type, and that later the image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father) and nine Old Testament Prophets were added to it in 1597 when it was brought to Moscow.

In recent times there has been much controversy over the presence of God the Father on the image.  Some of the more conservative Russian Orthodox (there is a strong, very conservative element in Eastern Orthodoxy) consider it to be heretical, which always amuses me, given the widespread and centuries-long use of the image of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox icons.  And of course it is paradoxical that an icon with a supposedly heretical image atop it should nonetheless be considered “miracle-working” through more than four centuries after the additions were supposedly made.

In any case, it is standard for copies of the icon to depict all of the figures, including God the Father right at the top.  So common is this practice that I have never seen an old copy without them.

Here is an example in which the image of Lord Sabaoth (with the Dove of the Holy Spirit) at the top center is plainly labeled Б[о]гъ О[те]цъ — Bog Otets — “God the Father.”  The longer inscription at the base reads:  “The Representation and Measure of the Wonderworking Image of the “Sign” Most Holy Mother of God of Kursk.


(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Interestingly, an example of the “Kursk Root” type in the collection the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts was recently called to my attention.  Here it is:

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton Ma)

This particular icon is interesting and unusual because someone, at some time, apparently removed the image of God the Father that should be in the clouds at the top, leaving an oddly blank space never found in such icons:

The  images of the prophets on examples of the type vary slightly from image to image.  The example just above shows (King) David, Moses, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, at left, Habakkuk at the base, and (King) Solomon, Daniel, Isaiah, and Elijah at right.  The example shown first on this page depicts David, Moses, Isaiah and Gideon at left, Habakkuk at bottom center, and Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Elijah at right.

THE PASSION AND JUDAS — A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE

This icon depicts fourteen scenes from the pre-Crucifixion “Passion” (Stradanie) of Jesus:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.Russianicons.net)

Though it does not bear an overall title, the little inscriptions by each image identify the various scenes.  As is common in icons, one begins at the upper left corner, moves right, then back to the left side and across again.  Let’s get a quick overview of the images:

Here, “the Jews consult to kill Jesus Christ”:

Here Judas (at left) betrays Jesus to the Jews for 30 pieces of silver:

Here Mary (standing before the other two Marys) implores Jesus “Not to enter Jerusalem”:

Jesus delivers his mother into the keeping of Mary and Martha:

Here is the “Mystic Supper” — the “Last Supper” of Jesus with his disciples:

Here is the “Washing of the Feet” — Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  Note that Judas, just to the left of the kneeling Jesus, has no halo because of his betrayal of Jesus, in this and other scenes:

Here Judas receives his 30 pieces of silver and informs on Jesus to the Jews:

Here is the “Prayer of the Cup,” the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:

Here Jesus tells his sleepy disciples to watch and pray:

Here Judas comes with the soldiers who are to arrest Jesus:

Here Judas gives the kiss that identifies and betrays Jesus to the soldiers:

Here the soldiers take the identified Jesus, as Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus:

Here the soldiers bring Jesus before the Archpriest Annas:

Here Annas questions Jesus as Peter denies knowing him three times:

Having done that, let’s focus on one particular fellow in this visual narrative:  Judas.  He is the little guy at left in this image, without a beard.  We see his name written above is head:  IЮДА — IOUDA — “Judas.”

Here he sits at the table of the “Last Supper”:

Judas is easily identifiable at the table, because he has NO HALO; and again, his name is written above his head.  He sits in the foreground between Peter at right, and Bartholomew at left.

Now there is something significant to note in this little image.  You will often hear it said (and read in books) that saints in icons are never shown in a complete side profile.  Well, you can see for yourself, from this image, that it is not always true.  We here see saints Bartholomew, Peter, and Andrew in full side profile.

Now oddly enough, Judas not only causes trouble for Jesus in the story of the passion, but he also has caused, and still causes, a good deal of trouble for biblical scholars, because he is something of a confusing mystery.

Some believe that Judas had no historical reality, but was a fictional creation in early Christian writing.  Why might one believe that?

You may recall that in 66 c.e there was a major revolt of the Jewish people against the Roman authorities at Jerusalem.  This began the Roman-Jewish war, which last from 66 until 73 c.e.   Near the beginning of this revolt, the Romans plundered the Temple in Jerusalem, which only incited further rebellion, and Jewish rebels not only defeated a Roman military legion but also slaughtered some 6,000 Romans.  The matter came to an end with the taking of Jerusalem by Titus Flavius (son of Emperor Vespasian) in 70 c.e. and the destruction of the Jewish Temple, and the last resistance was wiped out at the fortress of Masada in 73 c.e.

Needless to say, Jews were not popular among Romans during this time.  And early Christianity — which was just getting under way — was not yet clearly distinguished from the other segments of belief and antagonistic factions among the Jews.  After the destruction of the Temple, Christians differed from other Jews in believing that the reason for that destruction was the refusal of the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah;  non-Jesus-accepting Jews, on the other hand, believed the reason was failure to observe the Torah.

How does all this relate to Judas?  Well, the name Ιουδα — Iouda — (Judas) given the betrayer of Jesus in the New Testament — is just the Greek spelling of the Hebrew name Yehudah — Judah.  In short, a “Jew” (Yehudi) is one from the Tribe of Judah — and the Jews in general are Yehudim (plural form).  So the name “Judas” can be understood to be representative of the Jewish people as a whole in the New Testament — so goes the theory, which posits that this was an early Christian way of taking the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Romans and putting it on “the Jews,” from whom the Christians now wanted to distance themselves.

The earliest Christian writings in the New Testament are those of Paul.  And in all his writing, Paul never mentions that Jesus was betrayed by someone named Judas.  In fact he nowhere says that Jesus was specifically “betrayed.”  In the King James Version, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:23:

“For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread…”

The Greek word translated “betrayed” by the KJV translators in the 17th century, however, is παρεδίδετο (paradideto), which means “handed over,” rather than specifically “betrayed.”  So Paul — the earliest Christian writer — never mentions Judas, nor does he say specifically “betrayed.”

The theory, then, is that “Mark,” (actually the anonymous writer of the Gospel we call “of Mark) when writing after Paul, decided to introduce a character into the story of Jesus who not only betrayed him, but who could be understood as a representative of the Jewish people as a whole (“Judah”) — again, to take the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Romans, and put it on the Jews.  This decision, so the theory goes, was the New Testament root of the Antisemitism that has caused so much trouble over the last two millennia.

There is much more to this theory, which includes reference to Old Testament texts that look to have provided details of the “betrayal by Judas” story, including the thirty pieces of silver — but I will leave further investigation to those interested in this matter.  It takes us too far afield from iconography.

And speaking of iconography, where else do we find Judas in Eastern Orthodox icons?  We find images of his hanging of himself (actually, Matthew 27:3-8 says he hanged himself, while Acts 1:16-19 says he fell in a field and split himself open) in monastic frescos such as this one from the Gelati Monastery in Georgia (the country, not the state):

The other icon type in which we find Judas, you may recall, is that of the “Terrible Judgment,” which shows the naked Judas sitting in the lap of Satan in Hell:

Often he is shown — as here — still with his bag of silver still in his hand:

THE COUNCIL OF THE ARCHANGEL MICHAEL

In an earlier posting on the icon type of the “Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae,” I mentioned that there was a tendency in early Christianity to worship angels.  In an attempt to control it, or at least to put it under the authority of the main Church, there was a third-century Council of Laodicea in Phrygia.  It stated in its Canon 35 that Christians were not to avoid the regular church services by going away instead to call upon angels. Though there is some question as to the precise interpretation of this, we can nonetheless see how strong the veneration of angels was at this time by the making of this law (it was also forbidden by this council to join in prayer with “heretics” or “schismatics.”

“Council” in Church Slavic is Sobor.  Sobor is also the word used in Russia for a gathering or assembly, even for a cathedral.

It was believed that at the end of time — on the day of the “Last Judgment,” there would be a council of all the “heavenly powers” — the angels.  Because this was at the “end of time,” it was seen symbolically as the end of the old creation and the beginning of the Eighth Day — the “day of Eternity.”  That is why in old Church writings the Last Judgment is sometimes referred to as the “Eighth Day.”

It was considered appropriate, then, that the Church festival celebrating the angelic gathering would also be on an “eighth day,” so it was set on the eighth day of the ninth month (November 8th), which at that time would have been measured from the beginning date of March 1.

That leads us to today’s icon.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

Let’s look at the title inscription:

It is so long that to see it more clearly, it is best to divide it in halves.  Here is the beginning:

It reads:

СОБОРЪ СВЯТАГО АРХИСТРАТИГА МИХАИЛА…
SOBOR” SVYATAGO ARKHISTRATIGA MIKHAILA…
“COUNCIL [of the] HOLY CHIEF-COMMANDER MICHAEL…

Here is the ending:

…И ПРОЧИХ НЕБЕСНЫХ СИЛЪ БЕЗПЛОТНЫХЪ
….I PROCHIKH NEBESNUIKH SIL” BEZPLOTNUIKH
…”AND OTHER HEAVENLY POWERS BODILESS”

Putting all that together and in normal English, it is:

“THE COUNCIL OF THE HOLY CHIEF-COMMANDER MICHAEL AND THE OTHER BODILESS POWERS”

You will recall that Michael is traditionally considered the commander of the heavenly armies, and “bodiless powers” means the various ranks of angels, which are considered to be without physical bodies — but rather with “spiritual” bodies.  In Greek iconography this type is often called Η Συναξις των Ασωματων — He Synaxis ton Asomaton — “The Council of the Bodiless.”

At left we see the Archangel Michael:

At right is the Archangel Gabriel:

The center of the image is balanced by the unidentified (in this example) central angel, who holds two mirrors, that at left with the abbreviation for Jesus (IC) and that at right with the abbreviation for Christ (XC).  He has the typical curly ribbon ends at his ears that signify divine hearing.  It is noteworthy that the arrangement of the angels varies from example to example.  In some, this central angel is identified as Michael, with the two angels in the foreground being Gabriel at left and Raphael at right.  In others, Raphael is the central angel.  In examples with the foremost angels identified, often the names added to these are the archangels Iegudiel, Selaphiel, Uriel, and Barakhiel.

Below him, in a ring of Seraphim (traditionally Seraphim are red, but often artists reversed the colors, making them blue, and Cherubim red) is the image of Christ Immanuel, the Son born eternally of the Father, again with the IC XC abbreviation and the standard HO ON abbreviation in Greek,  signifiying “The One Who Is.”

The red angel at the base of the circle is identified by inscription as:

ХЕРУВИМЪ
KHERUVIM
“CHERUBIM”

It is a peculiarity of Russian iconography that the plural form is used for the singular with both cherubim and seraphim, which accounts for the monks (and nuns) named “Seraphim.”  In many examples, this red lower central angel is identified as СЕРАФИМЪ — Seraphim.

In English, the icon type “Council of the Archangel Michael and Other Bodiless Powers” is often called simply the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael,” the term synaxis being borrowed from the medieval Greek for a “gathering,” often specifically a religious gathering for the celebration of the Eucharist.  This type is also sometimes called simply the the “Synaxis of the Archangels.”

Here is another example of the type, which we can tell from its style dates from the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century:

soborarkhmikh

As mentioned earlier, this example has Mikhail (Michael) as the central angel (Archangel); in the left foreground is ГАВРИИЛЪ — Gavriil — Gabriel, and behind him left to right, [И]ЕГУДИИЛЪ — Iegudiil — Iegudiel and  СЕЛАФИИЛЪ — Selafiil — Selaphiel.  At right foreground is РАФИИЛЪ — Rafiil — Raphael, and behind him УРИИЛЪ — Uriil — Uriel and БАРАХИИЛЪ — Barakhiil — Barachiel.  The red central angel at the base is identified as a СЕРАФИМЪ — Serafim — Seraphim, and the title of the blue angels at each side is divided between them: ХЕРУ-ВИМИ — Kheruvimi — Cherubim.  The title, rather squeezed in at the top, is given as  СОБОРБ АРХ[АНГЕЛА] МИХАИЛА —  SOBOR ARKHANGELA MIKHAILA — “The Council of the Archangel Michael.”  So this shows the gathering or council of the Archangels — the АРХАНГЕЛЪСКИЙ СОБОР — Arkhangelskiy Sobor.

THAT MYSTERIOUS ANGEL AGAIN…

Today we will look at another cross, but not the usual kind.  We can tell that right away by the presence of the winged angel on it.  But why is the angel there, and who is he?

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

Metal icons often show wear from long use, and the fact that the owners liked to polish them with chalk did not help to preserve surface detail.  That is why we often find fine details on metal icons worn smooth.

The kind of cross shown here had a string or cord through the upper part.  So it is a breast or pectoral cross.

The image at the top is the “Not Made by Hands” type, depicting the face of Jesus on the cloth.  But again, who is the angel?

In spite of wear, one can tell that he carries a long rod (мери́ло — merilo) in one hand, and a mirror (зерцало — zertsalo) in the other.  One might, therefore, expect him to be an Archangel.   But traditionally, this type of cast metal cross of an angel with the crossbar at his head is identified as the Ангел Великого СоветаAngel Velikogo Soveta — the “Angel of Great Counsel.”

We have already seen another “Angel of Great Counsel” type in icons of Jesus as the Blagoe Molchanie — the “Blessed Silence.”  And this metal cross is another form of Jesus as the “Angel of Great Counsel.”  Pectoral crosses of this type are often from the 18th century, though one may find them a little earlier and later as well.

“TO JUSTIFY THE WAYS OF GOD TO MEN”: THE VISION OF TARASIY

In a previous mention of “Vision” icons, I listed the type known as the “Vision of Tarasiy.”  Today we will take a look at that very detailed type through an example from Novgorod, dating to the 16th century.

First, we need to know that in the years 1506 to1508, the great trading city of Novgorod in northwestern Russia (and neighboring Pskov) was severely afflicted by the “Black Death” — the bubonic plague.  Following that, in August of 1508, the large trading area of Novgorod (remember that it was a great trading city with links to Western Europe) was destroyed by a great fire, killing some 2000 people, added to the large numbers who had already died in the Plague.

Those unfortunate events are the basis for the “Vision of Tarasiy” type.  It is based on a legend (found in the Life of St. Varlaam Khutuinskiy, who died in 1192).  It relates that Tarasiy, the sexton of the Transfiguration Cathedral, was in it at prayer one day.   As the legend goes, he saw Varlaam rise up from his tomb, go before the icons, and begin praying, with tears flowing from his eyes.

The risen saint then told Sexton Tarasiy to climb up to the top of the church three times, and look out.  On doing this, Tarasiy on his first climb saw Lake Ilmen towering over the city, threatening to inundate it with flooding.

On his second ascent, Tarasiy saw angels in the sky, shooting fiery arrows down upon the citizens of Novgorod.

On his third ascent, Tarasiy saw a flaming cloud above the city of Novgorod.

Terrified by what he had seen, Tarasiy listened as Varlaam interpreted the vision.  He said that because of the sins of the people of Novgorod, God wanted to flood the city as punishment.  But because of prayers made to Mary (“Mother of God,”) and the intercession of other saints, God decided to be merciful.  He would only send the plague, which would spare those who sincerely repented their sins.  And the plague would be followed by a fire.  All of this, theoretically, was a lessening of the “flood” punishment because of the intercession of Mary with her son Jesus — a notion very much in keeping with the medieval Western Catholic idea that Mary was constantly “staying the vengeful hand” of God.  It shows us why Mary was so popular among Russians — because she was believed to be more merciful and forgiving than God the Father or his son Jesus, and so was the reliable advocate of humans in the severe heavenly court.

(Novgorod State Museum)

In the upper part of the icon, we see the heavenly court, with  Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) seated on the throne, and Christ Immanuel sitting on his lap.

Mary at left and John the Forerunner at right are interceding with God for the city of Novgorod, and along with them various groups of other saints.

In the lower heavenly clouds, we see Tarasiy’s second sight: an army of angels shoots arrows of plague down upon the Novgorodians.  At right, we see the first sight of Tarasiy, the waters of Lake Ilmen looming over and threating to flood the city.  And in the center is the third sight of Tarasiy, the fiery cloud that was to set the city aflame.

If we look closely at the white church on the left, we can see Tarasiy climbing up a ladder to its roof; and we see him depicted twice on the roof, all representing his three trips up.  In the church its iconostasis is visible, as is Varlaam Khutuinskiy talking with Tarasiy.

In the city below, we see the arrows of plague falling on the inhabitants, and angels with books everywhere, looking in them to see the deeds of the inhabitants, deciding who lives and who dies.  There are people in boats on the Volkhov River that flows through Novgorod, and men crossing the wooden bridge on horseback.

vidtar5

The “Vision of Tarasiy” icon type gives us an insight into the pre-modern Russian mind and a way of thinking that lasted right into the early 20th century there (and still in some individuals), which is that disease is a punishment of God for sin, with no knowledge of the part played by germs, viruses, and tainted food and water, and natural disasters also are God’s vengeance for human misbehavior, whether fire or flood or famine.  It was the old (and rather futile) attempt — as Milton wrote — “to justify the ways of God to men.”  It is the world before science, and that is what we see in Eastern Orthodox iconography in general — the world before science.

MORE CROSS TALK

A reader in Croatia kindly sent me photos of this cast brass and enamel cross.

If you read my previous posting on cross inscriptions ( https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/the-instant-expert-in-russian-crosses), you will find some of that material repeated here.

First, this is a “Priestless” (Bezpopovtsy) Old Believer cross of the type called an “altar cross” (напрестольный крест — naprestol’nuiy krest).  One can tell it is a “Priestless” cross by looking at the image at the very top.  It is the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus on the cloth, the so-called “Abgar” image that resulted from the old story that Jesus once pressed a cloth to his face, which became miraculously imprinted on the cloth, and was thus the first Christian icon.  If this had been a “Priested” (Popovtsy) Old Believer casting, it would instead have a top image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) and the Holy Spirit as a dove; and it would also have the I. N. TS. I inscription that abbreviates Pilate’s text “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Исус Назорянин, Царь Иудейский ).

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Let’s take a closer look at the top of the cross:

We see the “Not Made by Hands” image, with the halo of Jesus having the HO ON inscription, meaning “He Who Is.”  Just below it is a Church Slavic inscription identifying the image:

ꙌБРАЗЪНЕРУКОТ
ВОРЕННЫЙ

OBRAZNERUKOT
VORENNUIY

If we join the two lines as they should be, they read:
Obraz Nerukotvorrenuiy, menaing “[the] IMAGE NOT-HAND-MADE,” or in more normal English, “The Image Not Made by Hands.”

Below that are two flying angels, bowing toward the crucified Jesus, their hands covered with cloths to show reverence.  Their abbreviated inscription reads:

АГГЛИ Г{ОСРО}ДНИ
ANGLI GOSPODNI (remember that a doubled Г Г is pronounced like English “ng”)
“Angels of the Lord”

And just below the two angels is the abbreviated inscription:

Ц[А]РЬ СЛ[А]ВЫ
TSAR SLAVUI
“KING OF GLORY.”

1 Corinthians 2:8 reads:
Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Now let’s look at the middle portion.  At the top, we see the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,”   Remember that while the Old Believers use the , Ісусъ [Isus] spelling, the Russian State Church uses Іисусъ [Iisus]. and “Christ” is Христос — Khristos.

krestmiddle

Below the IC XC are these words:

СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ
SUIN” BOZHIY
“Son of God.”

At left we see the sun, and beneath it is its name:
С[О]ЛНЦЕ
SOLNTSE
“Sun”

At right is the moon, with its name:
ЛУНА
LUNA
“Moon”

Below is a long inscription that runs all the way along the main crossbar.  We will begin with the left side:

It reads:

КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛАНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО
KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLANAEMSYA VLADIKO
Literally,
Cross Of-You We-Bow-Before Master, or in better English,
“We bow before your cross, Master…” (Vladiko means “Ruler,” “Master.”)
It is often translated simply, “We honor/venerate your cross, Lord…”

And it finishes on the right side:

И СВЯАТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМЪ
I SVYATOE VOSKRESENIE TVOE SLAVIM”
Literally,
…And your holy resurrection we-praise
More smoothly,
“…And praise your holy resurrection.”

So all together, the inscription reads:
“We bow before your cross, Master, and Praise your holy resurrection.”

It is a common text, found in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom as well as in that of Basil, and repeated in the liturgy of the Third Week in Lent, etc.

In the lower portion of the upright beam, we see at left a spear, and at right a sponge on a reed.  By the spear is the letter K, abbreviating КОПИЕ — KOPIE, meaning “lance,” “spear.”   And by the sponge is the letter T, abbreviating  ТРОСТЬ — TROST’, meaning the reed/rod, with the sponge at its top.

In and near the lower crossbar, we see the walls and roofs of Jerusalem, and the letters НИКА — NIKA — Greek for “He Conquers.”

At the base of the upright we see these letters:

М  Л
Р  Б

They abbreviate

МЕСТО ЛОБНОЕ
MESTO LOBNOE

РАЙ БЫСТЬ
RAI BUIST’

meaning,

[The] Place [of the] Skull Paradise Became

In normal English, “The Place of the Skull became Paradise.”  “Lobnoe” is often more loosely translated as “Execution” or Judgment,” but Mesto Lobnoe refers to the place commonly called Calvary in English, from the Latin Calvariæ Locus, “Skull Place.”

That leads us to the final two inscriptions.

At the sides of the base of the cross are the letters

Г  Г

They abbreviate

ГОРА ГОЛГОФА
GORA GOLGOFA
“Hill [of] Golgotha”

“Golgotha” ultimately derived from the Aramaic Gagultâ, meaning “skull.”
Remember that Church Slavic (like Russian) has no “th” sound, so it is replaced with the “f” sound.

Just below the base of the cross is an opening in which lies a skull.  This follows the tradition that the Crucifixion happened at the center of the earth, and that was supposedly where the biblical first man, Adam, was buried.  So the skull is that of Adam.  And at the sides of the skull are the letters

Г  А
abbreviating
ГОЛОВА АДАМА
GOLOVA ADAMA
[the] SKULL (literally “head”) [of] ADAM

Some crosses (like this one) have a little plant at the base, a sprout of new life.

Now let’s look at the reverse inscription, which is the one most commonly found on these Old Believer brass crosses:

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Though it has some variations in spelling (these are common), it is the standard text of the Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins, found also in the Prayer of the Praise of the Cross (Похвала кресту — Pokhvala krestu) — which is:

Крест хранитель всей вселенной;
Krest khranitel’ vsey vselennoy

Крест красота церковная;
Krest krasota tserkovnaya

Крест царем держава;
Krest tsarem derzhava

Крест верным утверждение;
Krest vernuim utverzhdenie

Крест ангелом слава;
Krest angelom slava

Крест бесом язва.
Krest besom yazva

“The Cross is the protector of the whole universe,
the Cross is the beauty of the Church,
the Cross is the might of kings,
the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful,
the Cross is the glory of angels and scourge of demons

(Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins — Festal Matins for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

At the base of the inscription we see another eight-pointed cross (the Old Believers would not accept the Latin cross).  Though again the spelling is off, it has the usual abbreviations:

Ц[А]РЬ СЛ[А]ВЫ
TSAR SLAVUI
“KING OF GLORY.”

And

СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ
SUIN” BOZHIY
“Son of God.”

Also:

IC XC
IСУСЪ ХРИСТОС
ISUS” KHRISTOS
“Jesus Christ”

We see the letters K and T for Kopie and Trost‘ (spear and reed/rod).

Note that they have reversed the positions of the letters in the М  Л / Р  Б abbreviation for Mesto Lobnoe Ray Buist, but the meaning is the same — “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.”

Finally there are the letters Г Г for Gora Golgofa, “Hill of Golgotha.”

I mentioned earlier that the example discussed in this posting is an “altar cross.”  It is useful to know that cast metal Russian crosses are generally classified as follows:

1.  The altar cross (Напрестольный Крест — Naprestol’nuiy Krest):  it is placed on the altar beside the Gospel book.  These are the large crosses one often sees.

2. The pectoral cross (Нагрудный Крест — Nagrudnuiy Krest, or Наперсный Крест,  Napersnuiy Krest)These are the small to medium-sized crosses with a loop or hole at the top, so they may be worn on a cord or chain about the neck.  They are worn both by the clergy (priests, monks) and by certain pious people.

3.  The kiot or “arkcross ( Киотный КрестKiotnuiy Krest):  These are the crosses placed on the shelf in the “beautiful corner” of a room, along with the family icons.  They are of medium size, and have no hole or loop at the top.  They may also be taken on trips as a kind of temporary prayer focus.  They include those crosses one sees with side panels showing Martha and Mary (“Mother of God”) on the left of the Crucifixion and the Apostle John and Centurion Longinos (Login) at the right.  Kiot crosses are sometimes commonly known as “house crosses.”

4.  The body cross (Тельный крест — Telnuiy Krest):  These are the usually quite small crosses with a hole or loop at the top, worn around the neck on a cord or chain, and given to each person at baptism.  So any Russian Orthodox person wore a body cross.

TRADITIONAL CREATION ICONS

Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.

Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.  If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.

Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating.  We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.

There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science.  But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.

We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.

If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:

The two large words read СОТВОРЕНИЕ СВЕТА — SOTVORENIE SVETA.

Sotvorenie means “Creation.”  Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.”  Here it has the “world” meaning.  So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”

In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds.  That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.”  That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons.  At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.”  That is the traditional icon title for God the Father.  As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).

If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):

The inscription at left tells us what is happening.  It reads:

Въ а денъ
Въ начале
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ

V” a den”
V” nachale
Bog” sotvoril” svet”

It means:

On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”)
In [the] beginning
God created [the] world/light

If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve.  And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:

If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon.  And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head.  The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy). Now oddly enough, it was still commonly believed by many ordinary Russians — right into the early 20th century — that if a person suddenly committed some horrible deed, it was likely due to the influence of a devil.  Some no doubt still believe it.

In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:

In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him.  At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus.  And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world.  These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning.  The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon.  Angels stand in the background.

These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less.  But one does notice some significant differences among them:

Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:

Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed.  That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating.  This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.

We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons.  For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).

Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator.  As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating.  But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating.  Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title.  Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.

The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus.  But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…”  So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.

“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution.  But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.